Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Strap on those water skis

Has American conservatism - at least as a practical governing philosophy - already jumped the shark? Since Goldwater, the conservative movement has developed a powerful (and often on-target) critique of liberalism and ridden it to electoral success. The core of the conservative argument is that liberalism’s special-interest-driven statism too often defies basic common sense. This basic idea cuts across both the cultural and religious right and business wings of the party. It’s a key underpinning of all those tax cuts and regulatory rollbacks, as well as the crusade against “activist” judges out to undermine family values. Add a willingness to kick butt abroad and tar liberals as weak, and you have a potent combination. "Liberals run amok" is a basic pose, a “frame” of the conservative movement. Think of the “anti-idiotarians,” Dick Cheney’s dismissive sneer, or Reagan’s “there you go again.”

But now that conservatives are in power and putting their own stamp on government with minimal opposition, they are losing the common-sense argument. For the past 4.5 years, Bush has dressed up conservative governance in the rhetoric of liberalism. But how long can that work? Conservatives are much better tearing down the edifices of their enemies than actually making something work – just look at Iraq. We’ve seen major overreaching in the past few months on Social Security and judges. One reason Bush has lost the public on Social Security is that people just don’t understand his ideas. They were sold as a hash - both conservative and liberal, public and private – er, personal. To borrow South Park’s Chewbacca Defense, that does not make sense! Social Security in its current form is pretty easy to understand. Conservative governance may have some merits, but it has all the complexity of liberal governance, and more contraditions. And that makes it harder to defend – and harder to dismiss the arguments of your opponents with a “there they go again.”